Defining Overt and Hidden Barriers - ccidog Blog -
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Defining Overt and Hidden Barriers

To what extent should players expect a game to be accessible? Should the makers of a game like Rock Band be forced to include a game mode that somehow makes the music enjoyable for the deaf? Should Nintendo be held accountable because the Wii is inaccessible to gamers whose hands shake? At what point is there a reasonable expectation that developers make a game accessible? These are not easy questions. And they are questions I have wrestled with since I first started paying attention to the idea of game accessibility.

The best answer I’ve come up with is that there are two kinds of barriers within the game industry. There are overt barriers, and there are hidden barriers. Overt barriers are the hardest to overcome, because they are part of the very nature of a game. For example, in order for Rock Band to be completely barrier free, a player with hearing disabilities would have to be able to enjoy the music, since game accessibility ultimately means giving as many players as possible the best opportunity of completely experiencing a game. The music is an integral part of the Rock Band franchise. To try to make Rock Band accessible to the deaf would require the developer to completely redesign the game into something different. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a rose without petals, thorns, or a stem isn’t a rose at all. In other words, there are certain essential characteristics in a game’s identity which cannot be altered without changing the entire game—like creating a Rock Band game that doesn’t rely on music.

From the research I’ve done on game accessibility, there seems to be a small population of disabled gamers that would advocate dealing with these issues first. While some may think it a good idea for all games to be made barrier free, if the community begins by trying to fix the overt barriers first, they run the risk of wasting all their energy and getting very little in return. By trying to break down overt barriers, advocates are, in effect, trying to push certain types of games completely out of existence.

Hidden barriers are what advocates should deal with, and that's what I use my website for. There’s nothing within the definition of a game like Call of Duty that would make it inaccessible for the hearing impaired. But if Black Ops 2 comes out and has no subtitles whatsoever, the game would be inaccessible to that group. But this inaccessibility would not be due to the fact that it is a Call of Duty game, or even a first person shooter. Rather, it would be due to the fact that the developer omitted the one accommodation needed to make the game accessible to someone who cannot hear.

Hidden barriers are barriers that exist in the game not because they are part of the game’s definition, but because they are part of the way the core idea of the game has been implemented. A perfect example of this would be the quick time events in the God of War series. God of War is an action game. This does not mean that it had to have quick time events that require rapid tapping to accomplish an action. Those types of QTEs were simply implemented to suit the developer’s vision for the game. It is that vision which is inaccessible, not the game itself.

Because hidden barriers, by definition, are not part of the identity of the game, they are the easier to fix of the two types of barriers. After all, how can we expect developers to take the time to design a special mode for Rock Band so that the deaf can enjoy it, when developers still don’t take the time to make sure that first person shooters have accessible controls?

So, while I still have some very prickly questions that I need to work through regarding game accessibility, I do know this: Only after developers adequately address hidden barriers can advocates hope to address the issue of overt barriers and games that by their very definition are inaccessible.

For more articles on game accessibility, please visit DAGERS, or find us on Facebook or @dagersystem.

  • I am always interested in your articles regarding gaming accessibility and as you referenced once we get past the initial "games should be accessible" moment there are very prickly questions remaining. I would argue as a deaf gamer that deaf/hearing impaired accessibility is more nuanced than a question of subtitles. For example, as per your example, the lack of subtitles in a Call of Duty game would certainly make the game inaccessible to the deaf. However, Call of Duty as an online multiplayer based game is largely inaccessible to the deaf because of the requirement for verbal communication. Whether hearing and understanding others' speech, speaking yourself, or both which is a situation similar to your Rock Band example. The online multiplayer movement in gaming has left the deaf behind. I do recognize a handful of games providing nonverbal based online multiplayer communication. However, for all online multiplayer based on verbal communication the deaf gamer has no option whether or not to participate in the conversation. Forgive the length of my response. As always, thank you for bringing the discussion forward. Without the discussion certainly no change or understanding will happen.
  • Nice article. As someone that knows nothing on the subject and rarely thinks about it I have to say that it really made me think about things differently. Most notably the subtitle aspect, I usually turn them on because its convenient but I never really thought about the fact that for some players it is a necessity.

  • Nice article. This reply talks about what's part of / not part of core mechanic, rather than overt/hidden barriers, but it's basically the same thing.

    The simple fact that it is a game means that it can't be accessible to every single player - to be defined as a game it must contain some kind of challenge, and any challenge unavoidably excludes someone.

    So instead of making everything fully accessible to everyone, it's about making it as accessible as possible, through avoiding unnecessary exclusion.

    Really it comes down to what the core mechanic of the game is... So for your first person shooter, it's about hand-eye coordination, challenging your motor and visual skills. There's certainly a very great deal that you can do to open it up to a wider range of motor and visual ability - decent contrast, assists, good sound design, remappable controls, difficulty levels etc - but you can't make it accessible to someone who is blind and incapable of making precisely timed movements or operating more than a single button.

    Well, actually you can, just not without a level of work that generally isn't financially viable. For different mechanics the story is different, for some it is extremely easy to avoid unnecessarily excluding people with profound motor impairment, and for some it is extremely easy to avoid unnecessarily excluding people with profound vision impairment.

    That's the thing, for the type of skills that the core mechanic isn't meant to be a test of, there's no reason why it can't easily be made extremely accessible. Generally speaking there's no reason why you should excluded from an FPS game because of hearing/speech/cognitive impairment, the barriers involved (your hidden barriers) are very easy for developers to overcome, and simply make the game better for all players.

    At the end of the day accessibility just comes down to two techniques - communicating information by multiple means, and allowing flexibility in play style. Those two things make the game better for all players. Neither of those two things should ever negatively impact the core mechanic. If they do then you've failed, as you've made that mechanic, that core thing that makes the game fun, that people buy it for - less accessible for to everyone.